Why historical Jesus research is not a waste of time
Derek Flood, whose article on penal substitution in the early Church Fathers I recently summarized, just posted on why he thinks the historical study of Jesus is a waste of time. In this post I will argue, on the contrary, that Flood's criticisms are misplaced and that historical research is a valuable undertaking for the committed Christian.
Flood begins by affirming the value of researching the historical context of the New Testament (which might be summarized as 'background research'): "We want to understand the context of the writers of the NT so that we do not simply impose our doctrinal and cultural biases onto the text but actually hear what the NT authors are telling us." Presumably this includes the study of the original languages, ancient literary genres and techniques, Jewish and Greco-Roman culture, etc. Anything that goes into retrieving the original meaning of the NT texts.
But Flood has a problem with historical research which, "rooted in the assumptions of the historical-critical method, presents a view of Jesus that is deliberately opposed to the message of the New Testament." He cites as an example the attempt to separate authentic from inauthentic words of Jesus in the Gospels, which often involves a distinction between words that presuppose the occurrence of the resurrection (rejected as inauthentic), and words that plausibly originated in a pre-resurrection understanding of Jesus (or rather, an understanding of Jesus which did not yet affirm his resurrection, the assumption being that such an understanding is more likely to be accurate). To Flood this does not make sense because the resurrection was the key that allowed the early Christians to unpack Jesus' true significance: "All the stuff that Jesus said and did leads up the cross and the resurrection. It gives us the context for understanding the cross and what it means, and at the same time it was only afterJesus rose that they could look back and say, 'Ooooh, now I get it!'"
This leads to his culminating indictment against historical Jesus research:
Now the historical search instead ignores the resurrection and wants to reconstruct a hypothetical version of Jesus as if there was no resurrection. In doing this they need to reject the entire point of the Gospel writers and toss out their message, calling it 'inauthentic'. Thus they present a version of Jesus that Peter, Paul and John never believed in. Indeed most of the time in their so-called historical reconstruction Jesus either ends up coincidentally look[ing] like a reflection of these scholars, or a version of Jesus emerges that these scholars themselves can't do anything with and themselves reject as 'not compatible with the modern worldview.' As a result this 'historical' study does not help us understand the NT better, [because] it begins by rejecting the [most basic] assumption of the NT: the resurrection.
(Note: at certain points I have modified Flood's wording to better convey what I think his meaning was, because in the post as it stands it was a little confusing to me)
Now there are two basic criticisms here, and we need to keep them separate: one is that historical research inhibits our understanding of the NT by rejecting its fundamental presuppositions, and for the same reason it results in a portrait of Jesus which is opposed to that of the NT.
I think the first criticism is plainly mistaken, because determining the meaning or message of a text is a separate task from judging its truth or falsity. It may be that not sharing someone's beliefs or finding them strange or abhorrent makes one prone to misunderstanding or caricature, but there is no obstacle in principle to coming to an accurate understanding of a message one does not believe in. Classical scholars can arrive at a nuanced and accurate view of Homer's theology without themselves accepting it. But there is a vagueness in Flood's objection here because he is not opposed to background research, in fact he thinks it is essential to avoid anachronistic readings. The real objection seems to be that any historical reconstruction which deviates from the story told by the NT misunderstands it because that story is the correct understanding. But at this point in the argument that is simply question-begging: it could very well be that the NT's own understanding of the significance of Jesus is a misunderstanding and needs to be corrected, which leads to the second criticism.
Before I go on, however, a brief overview of the historical-critical method is apropos. In essence, historical criticism is a sub-species of literary criticism, which focuses specifically on texts that purport to be historical. Literary criticism begins by asking some basic, common-sensical questions of a text: what is its provenance (who wrote it, where and when) and what is its genre (what kind of information does the text provide, and what is its purpose). Historical texts are those which claim to provide accurate information about events which unfolded in the past (in the ancient world this does not necessarily mean that the events recounted took place exactly as described: for example, a historical biography could include the recounting of an action or speech by the subject which did not take place in exactly that way, but was nevertheless characteristic of that person, thus providing accurate information about that person's character and abilities).
Historical criticism involves judging whether the text's claim to accuracy is justified, whether we should trust the account in its portrayal of certain events. Here information on provenance is crucial (which allows us to determine whether the author was in a position to know about the events recounted), as is the ability to compare the account with other accounts of the same events and with material (epigraphical, archeological) evidence from the relevant period. Internal considerations are also important: is the account internally consistent, or do we suspect that it is a composite document forged from partially or wholly divergent sources?
It should be obvious that this task is essential if we are to arrive at a true and accurate understanding of the past. When Josephus gives us information about the Jewish War, we want to know whether we can trust it, and we read Josephus looking for information that will allow us to make that judgment. The same goes for Tacitus, Pliny the Elder and any other authors who claim to give us historical information. Accordingly, since the Gospels also claim to be giving us true information (about Jesus and his significance), we should read them through the lens of historical criticism with an eye to being able to make the same judgment. It is an obvious and completely sensible question to ask: do the Gospels give us an accurate portrait of Jesus?
Historical research becomes controversial, of course, when we try to elucidate the grounds for suspecting or concluding that a historical text is inaccurate. These generally fall into two categories: external and internal. External grounds would include presuppositions about the plausibility of certain events, information from other accounts of the same events (or even the absence of other accounts) and lacking or contradictory information concerning the text's provenance. Internal grounds would include questions of consistency and style: does the author claim to be providing accurate information while writing in a style more reminiscent of satire or mythology?
Flood's allusion to the 'assumptions' of the historical-critical method, together with his specific reference to the rejection of the resurrection, suggests that he shares the suspicion many Christians have of the historical-critical method: that it rules out a priori the accuracy of any account describing a miraculous, divine intervention. I would certainly agree with him that a priori judgments are unacceptable, but there are other grounds for doubting the accuracy of a historical text that must be taken seriously. Christians certainly do not doubt the Book of Mormon, for example, just because it recounts supernatural events or because it was handed down supernaturally, things which they affirm of the Bible! Questions are also raised about the lack of archeological confirmation, discrepancies in its depiction of pre-Columbine American culture, etc.
I suspect that the real question Flood is asking is whether it could ever be legitimate to 'go behind' the New Testament and try to arrive at a portrait of Jesus which diverges from the evangelists' understanding. I would say the answer is clearly yes. It is entirely possible, as I said before, that the NT understanding of Jesus is a misunderstanding, and the information they give us about him inaccurate. That this would be unpalatable to those who share that understanding has no bearing on its truth, any more than Mormons' discomfort with historians' doubts about the Book of Mormon is a reason to discount those doubts.
When a historian judges a historical text inaccurate, it is often possible to construct an alternative account of the events it describes, together with an explanation for how testimony to those events became distorted. That this account diverges from that of the text itself does not make the enterprise incoherent. Even if the canonical Gospels are our best sources for the historical Jesus that does not mean we are bound to accept their portrait of Jesus in our historical reconstructions (sometimes even the best is not good enough!). It is often possible to read between the lines of a suspicious text for evidence of ideological tampering, etc. Of course people can become suspicious of a text too easily or for the wrong reasons (for example, an a priori rejection of the possibility of the miraculous), but sometimes suspicion is justified, and the responsible historian will try to discover the truth behind tendentious or misleading accounts.
Some people (and I imagine Flood would be among them) object to the term 'historical Jesus' and the search for him because it seems to presuppose a disjunction between that figure and the 'Christ of faith' that the creeds proclaim. But this objection again is misplaced. Perhaps in many cases historical Jesus scholars have assumed this divergence from the outset, but of itself the historical-critical method does not require or even suggest this. Actually there are two opposite errors in the historical study of Jesus: one is to assume at the outset that historical research will uncover a portrait of Jesus radically different from the orthodox one, the other is to assume that historical research will confirm the identity of the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. The key here is to realize that the orthodox or NT portrait of Jesus is only one of many portraits of Jesus that are possibly true. The responsible historian should not assume in advance that any of them will turn out to be true, in advance of examining the actual evidence using the historical-critical method.
Now I happen to think that historical research does confirm the orthodox portrait of Jesus, and that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the rise of Christianity. But nothing about the historical method itself would cause me to assume that in advance of scholarly investigation.
It seems to me that Flood's objections only have purchase if one already knows that the NT understanding of Jesus is the correct one, so any reconstruction which diverges from it is by definition incorrect. Significantly, the grounds on which Flood accepts the accuracy of the NT portrait of Jesus are experiential rather than historical: "I find life when I read the gospels and the NT because it brings me into the same encounter of God in Christ that the New Testament authors had...The message of the gospel brings life. In contrast to this the message of these historians brings doubt, cynicism and darkness." This might be a legitimate way to the truth of the Gospels (NT Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, for one, endorses it or something very similar), but if doubts are raised on historical grounds about the accuracy of the Gospels, Christians should examine these potential defeaters on historical or philosophical grounds, not dismiss them because they challenge faith.
This brings us to the reason why historical research is not a waste of time for Christians: as I said previously, the orthodox understanding of Jesus is only one of many possible understandings. It is incumbent upon Christians to show that their understanding is the most plausible, whether on historical or philosophical grounds (or both), or at the very least show that it is a legitimate option in the marketplace of ideas. Even if many people come to faith via a non-evidential route (for example, they receive some immediate impression of God's reality and forgiveness), if there are evidential defeaters for the faith they must be dealt with, otherwise one's faith will be schizophrenic: in the Christian's heart she may 'know that my Redeemer lives', but her head might be screaming objections.
When it comes down to it, any decision for or against the Christian faith must include answering the question of whether or not the Gospel portraits of Jesus can be trusted. There could be multiple grounds for confidence or suspicion, among which are specifically historical grounds, having to do with the evidence that we have for Gospel authorship, dating, provenance, genre, corroborating accounts, etc. It is a valuable enterprise for Christians to look for and present the historical evidence for the Christian faith. Nothing about the historical-critical method demands that it arrive at a reconstruction which diverges from the NT understanding. At the same time, one can come to an accurate understanding of the NT without accepting its fundamental presuppositions.